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January 16, 2013

‘Hobbit’ FX wiz Joe Letteri on Gollum, the Goblin King and Azog

Posted in: Movies

hobbitauj keyart Hobbit FX wiz Joe Letteri on Gollum, the Goblin King and Azog

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" -- the first film in Peter Jackson's trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit" -- opened in theaters Dec. 14. Here's a look at the film's images. (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, left, and Graham McTavish as Dwalin in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Director Peter Jackson, left, and Martin Freeman on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf the Grey in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman, left, and Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen, left, and Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Hugo Weaving as Elrond, left, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Hugo Weaving, left, Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Galadriel actress Cate Blanchett, left, and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Actors and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman, left, and Richard Armitage in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Hugo Weaving as Elrond in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Elijah Wood as Frodo, left, and Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Christopher Lee as Saruman the White in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, reprised by Andy Serkis in motion capture performance, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Director Peter Jackson on the Bag End set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ken Stott as Balin, left, John Callen as Oin, William Kircher as Bifur, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and Graham McTavish as Dwalin in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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John Callen, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner and Stephen Hunter in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Hunter, Adam Brown, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy and Peter Hambleton in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Trolls William, Tom and Bert, performed by Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow and William Kircher, respectively, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Hunter as Bombur the dwarf, left, and Tom the troll in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dwarfs and stone giants in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The visual effects world has never been the glamorous side of Hollywood, but the artists at Weta Digital charged with creating the grotesque Goblin King in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” surely have the best claim to hard labor in this year’s Oscar race.

In order to craft the character’s uniquely bloated and beastly look, the team at Weta examined medical journal images of herpes, boils, gangrene, tumors and rashes. They worked overtime to make the Goblin King’s bulbous neck goiter jiggle just so, and to conserve the subtleties of an alternately comic and menacing motion-capture performance delivered by Australian actor Barry Humphries (better known — minus goiter, plus purple wig — as Dame Edna).

“He’s a giant, evil goblin,” said Weta visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. “It was all about making him as disgusting as possible, and fine tuning the performance to give you the sense of the weight, the massiveness of him.”

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

All that time toiling in boils paid off –Weta collected an Academy Award nomination for its work on “The Hobbit,”  the only film in the category to have all its visual effects created by one shop.

Here’s a video look at Weta’s work on the Goblin King:

Weta, “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson’s company, also worked on nominees “The Avengers” (with Industrial Light & Magic) and “Prometheus” (with MCP), becoming the first visual effects company to receive three Oscar nominations since ILM did so in 1991.

But it was “The Hobbit” in particular that presented the New Zealand-based shop with a unique array of challenges, from one CG character’s lengthy, theater-like dialogue scene to Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second.

Perhaps the most beloved digital character since he helped inaugurate the art form in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Gollum (Andy Serkis) appears for a critical, nine-minute sequence opposite Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in “The Hobbit.”

‘The Hobbit’ collected: Complete coverage

For what fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book will recall as the “riddle scene,” Weta needed their A-list creature to retain his signature icky charm, with updates to account for Jackson’s choice of sharper resolution format and other advances in technology. To that end, Weta’s designers added dirt, peach fuzz and skin defects to Gollum’s face to make him more richly detailed, and reconstructed his large, expressive eyes and facial muscles.

They tweaked the performance in other ways, too –in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, when Gollum quavered back and forth to his alter ego, Sméagol, Weta demonstrated the transition visually by dilating the character’s pupils; in “The Hobbit,” they added a physical spasm.

“It was really unusual to be able to do a character piece like that, a nine-minute dialogue scene between a CG character and a very good actor,” Letteri said. “There’s a level of detail that’s beyond what we were able to do 10 years ago.”

Here’s a look at Weta’s work on Gollum:

It was relatively late in the planning of “The Hobbit” that Jackson decided to make Azog, the 7-foot tall pale orc who goes up against the heroic dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, a digital character, which meant Weta had to rely on techniques it had adopted over the years on such films as “Avatar” and “King Kong” to quickly animate muscular New Zealand actor Manu Bennett’s performance.

This video shows Weta’s work on Azog:

While sharing his company’s efforts with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ visual effects branch, Letteri said he fielded questions about how  Jackson’s decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second affected Weta’s workload.

“You’re definitely taking cinema into a new realm,” Letteri said. “As far as the VFX branch of the academy goes, they appreciated the work and effort that goes into that. The work we have to do to get there is the same, we just have to do more of it.”

– Rebecca Keegan

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